MYSTIC — Because the Mystic Seaport Museum and two other stakeholders named in a 1954 will have yet to relinquish their claims to Enders Island, St. Edmund’s Retreat Center has proceeded with a quiet title action to establish its sole ownership.
The center needs a clean title to the property so that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can proceed with the repair and restoration of the island’s seawall.
The Seaport holds a 1.25 percent stake. Other stakeholders who have not signed quitclaim deeds are the Girl Scouts of Connecticut, which holds a 1.25 percent stake, and John Steffian of Waterford, a relative of the late Alys Enders, who owned the private island. His stake is 3.125 percent.
The three heirs will have an opportunity to appear in New London Superior Court on Dec. 18.
The retreat center has obtained quitclaim deeds from the other 33 heirs, adding up to 94.375 percent of their reversionary rights.
In a conversation Friday on Enders Island, the Rev. Thomas Hoar, who is president of the retreat center, said that while Alys Enders gave the island to the Society of St. Edmund shortly before her death in 1954, her wishes were not properly recorded in her will and in the deed to the island.
Hoar said the retreat has been able to pursue its mission on the island for 64 years but now needs to “clean up this 1954 error.”
He also asserted that all heirs lost their reversionary rights in 1970 because of the law of adverse possession and a 15-year statute of limitations.
Hoar said that when he met this month with Steve White, president of the Seaport, White said he wanted to work out a deal in which the museum would maintain its 1.25 percent interest if the island were ever sold. Hoar said Friday that will never happen.
“The island can’t be sold, it won’t be sold,” he said, adding that the island — connected to Masons Island by a causeway — is worthless without a working seawall.
Hoar said he told White that if St. Edmund’s signs a document stating that the Seaport would retain its 1.25 percent interest, then every other stakeholder’s reversionary rights would also become valid. Hoar said White ended the conversation there.
“I said, I’m not acknowledging rights I believe you don’t have, and he said ‘I guess there’s nothing to talk about,” Hoar said.
White could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Hoar maintained that much of the problem stemmed from the Army Corps’ public notice on July 6, 2017, concerning the seawall repair project, which he said “created a firestorm.”
At that point a group of Masons Island residents filed a lawsuit alleging that the retreat was in violation of Stonington zoning regulations and the restrictions on activities stipulated by Alys Enders. The island was to be used primarily as a novitiate or as a retreat for diocesan priests; otherwise ownership would revert to the heirs, according to Enders’ will.
The Masons Island group alleged that the retreat’s activities, which include counseling and substance abuse programs, sacred arts workshops and fundraisers, contradict the terms of the will.
Hoar said he sensed “an element of anti-Catholic sentiment” coming from the Masons Island group.
He said the problem also partly stemmed from the April 9 decision of Stonington’s Zoning Board of Appeals not to hold a public hearing on an appeal by three Masons Island residents who objected to a report by the town Department of Planning. The report said that the retreat center was not violating zoning regulations.
When asked why St. Edmund’s didn’t work to fix the wording of the deed in 1954, Hoar said “no one saw it as a real issue or a problem.”
“It didn’t really become a problem until we started trying to figure out what to do” with the seawall in the 1990s, he said. “It came to a head in Superstorm Sandy when a 30 foot gap was blown in the wall. We thought we were doing fine until the folks on Masons Island started trying to find ways to sabotage the seawall project.”
If the three remaining heirs do not sign quitclaims deeds, Hoar said the retreat may lose its chance to work with the Army Corps by being “bumped to the bottom of the list.”
“If the Army Corps backs out then we would hope a generous donor would step up and help us do it because we’re here for the long run,” he said.